The WURL (Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup) is the finest example of a mountain running day I know.
It’s a 36-mile, 20,000-foot of vert rock scrambling and running challenge, a horseshoe-shaped line in the sky linking up the boundary ridgelines of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch mountains, the range that forms the eastern edge of Salt Lake City.
I had a moment out there on the WURL last summer. You start the route with a continuous 6500-foot climb up Ferguson canyon to top out on Twin Peaks East. From that summit there’s a 4.5-mile section of almost uninterrupted scrambling. 4.5 miles doesn’t sound like too much, but scrambling terrain has a way of dilating distances in your mind. Like Dali’s surrealist clocks, the distances stretch out untethered to reality.
A half-mile becomes two, two becomes four, 4.5 becomes…forever. In the middle of that scrambling, an hour after leaving Twin Peaks East, I stopped and had the realization that this was the most interesting, continuously challenging, and aesthetic scrambling I’d ever done.
The WURL is the brainchild of Jared Campbell, the uber-prolific “wizard of the wasatch” (exhibit B: Millwood 100) and owner of many other superlatives. In addition to being an all-around great person, he’s done just about everything there is to do in ultrarunning: 10-time Hardrock finisher (and one-time winner), the only three-time finisher of Barkley, one of the few to finish Nolan’s 14 in under 60 hours, the list goes on and on. Oh, and creator of the Running up for Air (RUFA) events. On my way back from doing the Grand Canyon r2r2r alt route last year I spent the night with my friends Alexis and Brennan Crellin in SLC. Brennan mentioned that Jared and I couple other folks were heading up Grandeur in the morning, so we jumped on the bandwagon. I’d never met Jared and was excited to fix that. Crunching up the snowy trail by headlight, he casually mentioned that I should definitely come down in the summer and give the WURL a shot. And just like, the seed was planted.
I made it down to SLC twice during the summer to scout. I’d stay with my friends the Crellins, scout the route, and work remotely when I wasn’t running around. I wanted to step foot on the whole thing before attempting it for time, and ideally have a couple reps on each of the more technical sections.
As Jared writes in his blog, the WURL “is NOT a trail. Rather, it should be thought of as an endurance climbing route that happens to have trails in brief sections.” You see this play out in the makeup of the route and the effort. On paper, it initially doesn’t seem so bad. About 16.5 miles are on either established trail or some sort of decent social trail. That leaves 18.5 miles off trail. Almost half are on trail, you think to yourself, how bad can it be?
I like data, so let’s use some data. Last September those 16.5 trail miles collectively took me 6.5 hours, and contain 7,400 feet of ascent. In comparison, the 18.5 off-trail miles took 12.5 hours, nearly double that time, and contain 12,600 feet of vert — not too far from double the vert as well. Timing-wise, I managed just under 19 hours. Not elite, but in the upper 10% or so of all efforts so far. The discrepancy between on-trail and off-trail duration will only increase as the total time does; it’s the scrambling that puts you through the wringer here more than any trail slogging.
Here’s the breakdown of each as the proportion of its total. My takeaway? Don’t pay attention to the mileage, mileage is deceiving. Respect the scramble.
But anyway. Training had been going well leading up to the effort, and I’d been planning this as one of my major summer goals. My goal was under 16 hours. I felt mentally and physically ready to push myself, to see if I could play with some of the big names on a route that I felt played to my strengths. But at the same time, I was realistic about my chances for a “perfect” run. Even though I’d scouted it all, that only gets you so far with that much technical country. The record holder Jason Dorais lives in SLC and set the record I think on his fourth full attempt of the route (not all his previous attempts were for time). Plus he spends hundreds of hours in the Wasatch each year. Joey Campanelli has the second-fastest time, literally lives in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and set his fastest time I think on his third attempt. Adam Loomis lives in SLC, or at least did leading up to his fast run. Luke Nelson is the outlier among the fast guys, all he did was a single partial scouting trip prior to his attempt. But it’s a dangerous game comparing yourself to Luke; just because he can do it doesn’t mean it’s really doable.
The same pattern plays out on the women’s side: the top three fastest women’s times are all from SLC folks: Jen Day Denton, Stacey Dorais, and Alexis Crellin.
So, there’s obviously some home field advantage. It pays to know the terrain really well. And at least so far, everyone not named Luke friggin’ Nelson has spent a considerable amount of time on the route before setting a fast time.
I started at 4:30a on September 19, similar to several others hoping to maximize their daylight hours on the harder terrain. Ferguson canyon has a trail up it almost the whole way now, and hiking up in the darkness for a couple hours gives you the chance to get in a rhythm and mentally prepare for the day ahead.
Jason’s time of 14h 40m is absolutely insane and I knew I couldn’t compete with it. But I thought if I had a great day I could go under 16 hours. Luke did it in 15h 44m, and I had his time splits, so I figured I’d try to more or less match his times throughout and see how things went.
Sunrise caught me just before Twin Peaks East, and I hit the summit about half an hour behind Jason and 15 min behind Luke. The next couple hours of scrambling are a blur except that I had the distinct feeling of being completely in control, moving fluidly, and having a great time. For all my other mental faults, I do have the ability to remember a lot of nuances from scouting trips, and that paid off in spades here. The most vivid moment is when Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” started playing from my phone in the vest pocket and I started giggling uncontrollably to myself and singing (badly) along, climbing along the steep approach to Dromedary. Laughing to myself is kind of a hallmark of my biggest days in the mountains, actually. When it happens it’s always in the mornings, when I’m in steep, rocky, particularly inspiring country. Moments of unfettered joy.
Looking back at the splits, I ended up scrambling the Ferguson section exactly as fast as Jason did, and even gained a couple minutes on Luke. And I’d compare to other folks like Joey fastest run, but I don’t have his splits. It’s nice to know that when things are going well I can move through that country as fast as folks like Jason and Luke. That’s good company, and one definite positive I can take from the experience. The trick is keeping that pace for 15ish hours.
Ultimately, I moved well for about nine hours. Then, while the wheels didn’t completely fall off, I certainly lost the quickness and fluidity I wanted. The final 10 hours of the effort turned into survival mode, just trying to keep forward progress going and some kind of rhythm. Fighting to get calories down and pushing nausea away, especially in the last third.
There were some amazing moments. Sharing miles with my friend Alexis Crellin was a highlight. She’s a helluva friend, the former women’s FKT-holder, and just a selfless font of knowledge for me as I wrapped my head around the challenge in the months leading up to it. The kind of person you want in your corner. Not to mention her husband Brennan and their three kids hiking up to Catherine’s Pass to re-supply me. I’m lucky to have such good friends and support.
Jared Campbell graciously offered to pace me for the final third of the effort, from Pfeifferhorn to the finish. I was pretty well cooked by the time I reached him, and I’m disappointed in the effort I mustered with him. I mean, any time you get to share some miles with one of your role models it’s only natural to want to put your best foot forward. I take some comfort in knowing that if there’s anyone who appreciates getting run over by the WURL, or any endurance effort, it’s that guy.
Trying to follow Jared in the darkness through the scrambling between Bighorn and Lone Peak was a surreal experience. At this point my mental ability has been reduced to silently moving forward: I could focus only on moving my clumsy, slow body forward. I stop to eat every once in a while because the nausea of trying to eat while moving will make it come right back up. And I follow Jared as best I can in the cone of light ahead of me. He moves like a weightless ghost through the rocks, seemingly without effort. At one point I turn the corner around an enormous boulder on the descent from Bighorn and he is a move away from committing to a thirty-foot vertical downclimb between boulders. He stops at the last second and says, “well you know, we don’t have to go this way…” At other moments, he smoothly mantles onto boulders, showing the years of rock climbing experience baked into how he moves through the mountains. I scratch and claw up the same rock, belly-flopping onto the top for the extra friction, all thought of form or grace wiped away.
At some point in Bell’s Canyon I lost the ability to jog downhill. My core and hip flexor muscles were so blasted by the day of scrambling that I had next to no ability to brace and do a standard one-legged hop down between any of the two or three-foot drops between rocks, roots, etc. I could still jog somewhat when we got to the short flatter trail sections right at the end, but the inability to go down a steep trail — and the Bell’s trail is one of the steepest and rockiest around — was final salt in the wound.
Alexis, bless her heart, stayed up to meet us a mile from the finish. We jogged in to the empty parking lot, share hugs all around and a few stories, and that was that.
I didn’t physically have the day I wanted. But that’s okay. It’s part of the whole experience. I wouldn’t trade what the whole endurance running lifestyle gives me for anything. It’s given me so much direction in life, purpose, willpower, and many of my best friends. I love the person that training for these sorts of things makes me be, the hundreds of hours a year and tens of thousands over a lifetime of training that force me to be in the moment, to appreciate nature, to show up, to do the work. There’s a lot of good in that across all of life. Going for these challenging endeavors is just one facet of all that goodness. Till next time, WURL…